I make an effort to maximize the number of high-quality inputs to my mind, but I don’t make a particular effort to plan the inputs.

Instead, I select from a pool of podcasts or book lists as the mood strikes me. I previously tried to build a deliberate course of study, but then I read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. One of the concepts that resonated with me was the idea of the adjacent possible.

Sometime in the late 1870s, a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his work at Maternité de Paris, the lying-in hospital for the city’s poor women, and paid a visit to the nearby Paris Zoo. Wandering past the elephants and reptiles and classical gardens of the zoo’s home inside the Jardin des Plantes, Tarnier stumbled across an exhibit of chicken incubators. Seeing the hatchlings totter about in the incubator’s warm enclosure triggered an association in his head, and before long he had hired Odile Martin, the zoo’s poultry raiser, to construct a device that would perform a similar function for human newborns.1

…While 66 percent of low-weight babies died within weeks of birth, only 38 percent died if they were housed in Tarnier’s incubating box. You could effectively halve the mortality rate for premature babies simply by treating them like hatchlings in a zoo.2

Tarnier didn’t take a visit to the zoo seeking innovation. It was just a good way to spend the day. It was just another good input.

Tarnier’s device wasn’t the first of its kind, but he also gathered careful statistics, which proved its worth to the medical establishment. As time passed, this basic incubator was incrementally improved, drastically increasing a struggling newborn’s chance at life.

Modern incubators, supplemented with high-oxygen therapy and other advances, became standard equipment in all American hospitals after the end of World War II, triggering a spectacular 75 percent decline in infant mortality rates between 1950 and 1998. Because incubators focus exclusively on the beginning of life, their benefit to public health—measured by the sheer number of extra years they provide—rivals any medical advance of the twentieth century.3

Like many other medical advances, the benefits of a modern incubator were not evenly spread around the globe.

…Whereas infant deaths are below ten per thousand births throughout Europe and the United States, over a hundred infants die per thousand in countries like Liberia and Ethiopia, many of them premature babies that would have survived with access to incubators. But modern incubators are complex, expensive things. A standard incubator in an American hospital might cost more than $40,000. But the expense is arguably the smaller hurdle to overcome. Complex equipment breaks, and when it breaks you need the technical expertise to fix it, and you need replacement parts.4

…Designing an incubator for a developing country wasn’t just a matter of creating something that worked; it was also a matter of designing something that would break in a non-catastrophic way. You couldn’t guarantee a steady supply of spare parts, or trained repair technicians. So instead, [MIT Professor Timothy] Prestero and his team decided to build an incubator out of parts that were already abundant in the developing world. The idea had originated with a Boston doctor named Jonathan Rosen, who had observed that even the smaller towns of the developing world seemed to be able to keep automobiles in working order.5…So Rosen approached Prestero with an idea: What if you made an incubator out of automobile parts?

Three years after Rosen suggested the idea, the Design that Matters6 team introduced a prototype device called the NeoNurture. From the outside, it looked like a streamlined modern incubator, but its guts were automotive. Sealed-beam headlights supplied the crucial warmth; dashboard fans provided filtered air circulation; door chimes sounded alarms. You could power the device via an adapted cigarette lighter, or a standard-issue motorcycle battery. 7

Given a goal of a sustainable incubator for the developing world, it was time spent in the world, not the lab, that let to the use of automobile parts in the final product

As the author Steven Johnson puts it,

Good ideas are like the NeoNurture device. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as $ 40,000 incubators, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.8

Where this idea takes off for me is when the analogy is made to apparent creativity in nature.

Formaldehyde is a first-order combination: you can create it directly from the molecules in the primordial soup. The atomic elements that make up a sunflower are the very same ones available on earth before the emergence of life, but you can’t spontaneously create a sunflower in that environment, because it relies on a whole series of subsequent innovations that wouldn’t evolve on earth for billions of years: chloroplasts to capture the sun’s energy, vascular tissues to circulate resources through the plant, DNA molecules to pass on sunflower-building instructions to the next generation.

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet is it not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.9

In the extension of this idea to my own life, adding inputs, even if they are selected on a whim, is like adding molecules to primordial soup.10 The more widely I read, the more connections I can make. All the better if they are unusual connections, because unusual is often valuable.

  1. Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. Kindle link ↩︎

  2. Kindle link ↩︎

  3. Kindle link ↩︎

  4. Kindle link ↩︎

  5. Kindle link ↩︎

  6. An organization Prestero formed. ↩︎

  7. Kindle link ↩︎

  8. Kindle link ↩︎

  9. Kindle link ↩︎

  10. For extra credit, listen to this episode of the Inteligence² podcast. ↩︎